From the brain freeze-inducing aftermath of a daiquiri, to the messy slurp of a crawfish head, the New Orleans eating-and-drinking scene is built for pleasure. But perhaps the biggest draw for tourists visiting the Crescent City is its seminal sandwich, the po’ boy.
Sure, the muffaletta has a lot going for it—tangy olive salad, sesame-dappled bread, stacks on stacks of meat and cheese. But the po’ boy exists on a different plane. The hunk of fluffy French bread loaded up with fillings—from relatively subdued (fried shrimp), to unequivocally gluttonous (hot roast beef with debris gravy and French fries)—is a tried-and-true hangover cure and staple of bayou culture.
Recently, though, a kindred-spirit sandwich has exploded onto the New Orleans dining scene in a major way, with bread equally as springy and fillings every bit as indulgent. Welcome to the New Orleans bánh mì revolution.
In the mid-1970s, Vietnamese immigrated to the United States by the hundreds of thousands to escape communist oppression. Louisiana, with its Catholic missionaries and familiar sub-tropical climate, was a particularly appealing new home. Vietnamese food’s French influence from years of colonial rule also made it a natural fit for the melting pot of Creole cultures in New Orleans. Today, there are more than 25,000 Vietnamese immigrants living across the state, with the majority in and around Orleans Parish.
Photo courtesy Liz Barclay
For the hungriest and most observant New Orleanians, it didn’t take long before folks started to realize that bánh mì and po’ boys are, well, very similar.
Both the bánh mì and po’ boy’s quasi-French roots are most evident in the baguette-like vessel affiliated with each sandwich. The “New Orleans-style” French bread used to contain po’ boy ingredients is a masterpiece unto itself, with a flaky, crusty exterior that emits a snap, crackle, pop with each bite, and a porous, wispy interior ideal for soaking up all the sandwich’s sauces and juices. Crafting this loaf is a delicate and time-sensitive practice, with the bread’s shelf life lasting a little bit over a day—if you’re lucky. For 111 years, Leidenheimer’s Baking Company has been synonymous with po’ boy bread, making supply runs multiple times a day to sandwich shops across the city. (The company is so committed to po’ boy tradition that it has created a charming, 1990s-esque po’ boy bread screensaver that’s available for download. You’re welcome.)
For decades, these restaurants would tout their bánh mì as “Vietnamese po’ boys” in an effort to attract not-so-adventurous diners with the lure of the quasi-familiar.
Similarly, the bread used to construct bánh mì in New Orleans is crafted, by and large, by one revered bakery: Dong Phoung. Located in New Orleans East, Dong Phoung is perhaps singlehandedly responsible for codifying what has become known as the New Orleans-style bánh mì, with its distinctive French bread that crackles on the outside but possesses a chewy interior.
Photo: Parkway Bakery
What’s more, both po’ boys and bánh mì really aren’t quite complete unless they arrive dressed with a stable of go-to accoutrements. For a po’ boy, this means lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayonnaise—maybe onions. For bánh mì, the works includes aioli, pickled carrots, pickled daikon or radish, cilantro, cucumbers, and jalapeños. In very few other sandwiches are condiments such a hard-and-fast requirement for success.
Bánh mì enclaves have primarily existed in the city where there are large Vietnamese pockets, including New Orleans East and just across the Mississippi River on the West Bank. For decades, these restaurants would tout their bánh mì as “Vietnamese po’ boys” in an effort to attract not-so-adventurous diners with the lure of the quasi-familiar. The name Vietnamese po’ boy has largely stuck, used interchangeably with bánh mì citywide to describe the sandwiches. Restaurants also use ingredients traditional to po’ boy culture (such a hot sausage and deep-fried shrimp) on their bánh mì, creating what are perhaps truly cross-pollinated po’ boys—neither traditional po’ boy nor bánh mì, but instead a hybrid unique to the city. This crossover marketing practice is brilliant for business, but also for solidifying Vietnamese food’s foothold in the NOLA dining scene.
Photo: Mr. Bubbles Sandwich House
Over the past three years, bánh mì joints have infiltrated almost every neighborhood in the city, building loyal followings and creating even more demand for their spicy, meat-filled sandwich creations. From 2012 until 2014, half a dozen new Vietnamese restaurants launched in Orleans Parish, where before options were limited to a handful of strip mall-based joints and a stalwart pop-up in the back of a Marigny bar.
This cross-pollination is on display at Killer Poboys inside the French Quarter’s Erin Rose Bar, where inventive po’ boys (like roasted sweet potato with black-eyed pea and pecan spread) are served on Dong Phuong bread.
Located inside the same shopping center as Vietnamese Mecca Hong Kong Market, Mr. Bubbles Sandwich House in Terrytown is a prime example of bánh-mì culture’s ascent. Earlier this year, the restaurant provided catering (in the form of 300 bánh mì sandwiches) for the cast of American Horror Story while filming in New Orleans. (The thought of Kathy Bates biting into a meatball bánh mì is an image that will haunt your dreams.) Now, Mr. Bubbles is looking for expansion locations outside of the West Bank comfort zone just three years after opening.
“We have people driving here from towns all around New Orleans just to get a bánh mì,” said Thao Nguyen. “People have even driven here from Baton Rouge. They’re definitely more adventurous than they used to be about the traditional flavors, too.”
Nguyen flipped open a laminated, picture book-style guide to the restaurant’s bánh mì offerings. Each page featured a sandwich and a breakdown of its ingredients, from pickled carrots to butter aioli.
“We do a traditional Cajun link hot sausage-style po’ boy with Vietnamese dressing, so that’s something people can get if they want to play it safe,” she explains. “There’s never been anyone, though, that’s tried the more traditional styles and regretted it.”
Bánh mì with po’ boy-style ingredients and preparations are still far more common. But as the bánh mì’s popularity continues to rise, its lynchpin elements have started showing up on po’ boy menus as well. This culinary exchange is on display at Killer Poboys inside the French Quarter’s Erin Rose Bar, where inventive fillings (like roasted sweet potato with black-eyed pea and pecan spread) are served on Dong Phuong bread.
“The shrimp po’ boy [with marinated carrot, daikon, cucumber, herbs and Sriracha aioli] we do is the most bánh mì-influenced,” says Killer Poboys’ Hattie Krakow. “The marinated carrot recipe came from a Vietnamese woman who worked for a long time in [French Quarter fine dining stalwart] Arnaud’s.”
The annual Oak Street Po’ Boy Festival included a vendor solely devoted to bánh mì interpretations in 2014, serving up three different varieties, including a vegan version with tofu and fired roasted tomato sauce. Po-boy-meet-bánh mì hybrids are even sneaking into fine-dining establishments like Mid City’s Mopho, helmed by Chef Michael Gulotta, where a roster of po’ boys—from sloppy roast duck with banana barbecue sauce, to fried P&J oyster with blue cheese—all arrive dressed with traditional bánh mì fixings, including chicken-liver pâté.
Po’ boy-focused restauranteurs appeard unconcerned about any threat to business the bánh mì might cause. If you ask (as I learned from repeat experience), they’ll simply laugh and roll their eyes. The city’s elder sandwich statesmen know their audience isn’t going anywhere.
Perhaps, though, the Vietnamese sandwich will help create some healthy competition. Another reason the bánh mì has found such a loyal follow is the price-point differentiation. An average po’ boy from a corner store or gas station will set you back a cool $10 for a six-inch creation. On the other hand, a bánh mì of similar size (and, arguably, better flavor) is often half as expensive, clocking in at around $4.50.
While it remains to be seen if these budget-friendly sandwiches will retain their low price tags as they become more deeply integrated into wider New Orleans culture, the two sandwiches will continue to push and pull on one another, creating yet another New Orleans-specific, culturally mish-mashed delicacy worth celebrating.